Most people think of homelessness in terms of Steve Buscemi's character from Big Daddy -- creepy, potentially crazy people reaping the benefits of a lifetime of bad decisions. Well, in the summer and fall of 2009 in a little town in Montana, I was "lucky" enough to peer through a window at the world of chronic homelessness while experiencing some temporary homelessness of my own. Here's what I hope you never find out ...
#7. It Doesn't Take Much to Wind Up Homeless
Quick question: If you came home from work one day and found that your apartment was gone -- like if it got sucked into a portal to hell like the house at the end of Poltergeist -- where would you go? If you say you'd stay with family, what if you had just moved to a new state, away from everyone? If you say you'd crash at a friend's house, what if the only people you knew were your roommates in said apartment? If your answer is you'd go to a hotel, that might be fine for a night, but remember that the rates are 10 times what you were paying in rent, so good luck saving the cash you'll need to put down a deposit on a new apartment.
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"Of course we accept cigarette butts and burrito receipts as legal tender."
Well, I didn't have an answer when the above happened to me (minus the portal to hell part). After three months in a new town, it turned out my roommate's rent checks had been bouncing, and my landlord never bothered to notify us until he showed up with eviction papers. I worked a job that kept me away for a week at a time, so one day I just came home to find all my possessions boxed up in the garage. It was as simple as that -- for the first time in my life, the sun went down and I had no idea where I was going to sleep. And it was the same for the next night, and the next week, and the next month ...
I had moved to Montana after finishing up my worthless liberal arts degree. I moved in with some cool folks my age and started a six-month contract job. It was an AmeriCorps position with weeklong shifts working in the wilderness, building hiking trails and whatnot, followed by a week off to spend in town. I was halfway through my contract when I found myself homeless. There are people with worse stories, of course -- many homeless are mentally ill, or maybe their parents kicked them out of the house for being gay when they were teenagers -- the point is, the line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much, much thinner than you think.
Sometimes it isn't so much a "line" as "peeing in your boss's coffee."
In my case, I could've been more wary of my housemates and had a better backup plan in place. But as I pointed out in the opening paragraph, very few of us do. You've had a home your whole life; you just take it for granted. Besides, it wasn't like I was unemployed, right? But as I found out ...
#6. Having a Job Won't Save You
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So I didn't have a home -- but I had a car, so I had a place to sleep. And since I wasn't paying rent, I was pocketing the difference, which meant I could save up for a new place, right? Hell, it's so easy that you have to wonder why people bother being homeless at all!
"Have you considered a Prius?"
Yeah, here's the second big surprise waiting for you out on the street: how incredibly expensive homelessness is. See, living on the street wouldn't be that big of a deal if you were, say, a robot. But as a functioning organism living in a society, you suddenly realize there are all of these basic needs you need to MacGyver solutions to on the fly.
First up: the ability to prepare food. I had to buy a camp stove and a mess kit, which will generally run you about $150 for stuff you can be reasonably sure won't break, plus you have to continuously pay for the fuel. I didn't want to get in trouble for sleeping in town, so I drove out into the woods to sleep, which meant I had to keep buying gasoline. Even people who work with their hands need to clean up and shower, so I spent the occasional night at a youth hostel or cheap motel ($25 to $50 a night) just to get access to running water and a mirror. Then there are all of the little complications that come from, for instance, not owning a refrigerator to store food in -- and every little thing costs you.
Buying cheese by the wheel is a mistake I only made four or five times.
I could have gone without these things, but then that would have meant sacrificing showers, privacy, and hot food, despite having a job.
And I was fortunate because it was summertime -- winter camping in Montana would have made all of this far more complicated and much more expensive (it costs money to keep warm, no matter how you do it, and the odds of accidentally setting yourself on fire somehow rise exponentially). Still, I had to start buying rooms at the hostel or motel more frequently as fall set in and the weather got colder. I was working full time and taking care of no one other than myself, and I still couldn't afford to drag myself out of homelessness.
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Forget making it rain -- I could barely make condensation.
So maybe it's not that surprising that 30 percent of homeless people are employed and a significant number of people in shelters have full-time jobs. While they're making enough to scrape by, the expense of homelessness is enough to keep permanent or long-term housing out of reach.
#5. Government Benefits Aren't as Much Help as You Think
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"But wait," you're sputtering at my article through your tears of compassion. "The government! Aren't there all sorts of programs to help people in that situation? Didn't I hear a pundit say that people on welfare drive Escalades?" Shockingly, being homeless actually doesn't qualify you for the government gravy train we've heard so much about, unless you take the metaphor literally, in that a train full of gravy also would not do much to alleviate an insecure housing situation.
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Not pictured: a fucking Coleman stove.
Housing assistance exists, but it's limited in scope and scale -- and to give you a better idea of how the Department of Housing and Urban Development operates, rich neighborhoods are literally getting twice as many housing subsidy dollars as the poor ones, and 12 million Americans are spending more than half of their salary on housing.
But what about food stamps? Well, the problem with EBT -- the food stamps card -- is that, with little exception, you can only buy stuff that needs to be prepared at home, and if you're homeless, that means it's kind of like one of those cruelly ironic wishes granted by a genie. And unless you're in California, Arizona, Florida, or Michigan, you can't use food stamps to buy food at restaurants.
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Sorry, kid. The Sizzler ain't for the likes of you.
So if you want to eat more junk food, homelessness is great! If you don't want to die of kidney failure, though, your options are more limited, because crackers and cheese just don't keep a man going -- especially when you have to be ready for a week of physical labor.
So, I used the EBT to load up on food that I needed to cook, which meant I was using my cook stove more, which meant more money spent on fuel. Plus, you're not allowed to start fires in town, obviously, so cooking often meant yet another car trip, which meant more driving and more money spent on gas. In general, it just gave me an expensive commute every day. The food stamps were helpful, obviously, in that I have no idea how I would've survived without them. But like everything else, they were severely hindered by the realities of my situation.
There's much less smiling on the eighth night of this.
All right, so what about homeless shelters? Well ...
#4. Shelters Are a Band-Aid
I never stayed in a shelter. In fact, it never occurred to me to do so until I started working on this article. That turned out to be OK, because as much help as they have been to some, a lot of the time the shelter is worse for people than just staying on the streets. There is a reason why so many prefer to sleep on park benches.
The lumbar support is unbelievable.
First off, shelters have really strict rules and schedules, which makes perfect sense: They have to maintain organization, and their frustratingly limited resources means that it's really easy for food to get misplaced or people to be taken advantage of. The people who work there are doing amazing things with very little to work with ... but it also means that it can be nearly impossible for the people staying there to, for example, find a job.
Many shelters are so overcrowded that people staying there have to arrive at 4:30 in the afternoon to even have a chance of getting a bed that night, which means cutting out of work early, which means risking losing your job, which exacerbates the problem you're trying to escape. There's also evidence that the stress of living in a homeless shelter makes you more prone to violence than living on the street.
Close proximity to a Home Depot doesn't help.
And that's if you can even find a shelter -- Los Angeles is the homeless capital of America, and one-fifth of its homeless are without any kind of shelter at all.
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If Los Angeles had seasons, this would be an even worse problem.
But honestly? After enough time had gone by, I started realizing that the only thing harder than finding a place to sleep was finding a place to be awake. What do I mean by that? Well ...